“Can you help us?” I closed my book and shifted to the left to make space for the younger girl to sit. I looked at her and knew instantly what she wanted to ask me. “No. I’ve already told Geetika that I won’t do it and now I’m telling you.” Goutami looked at me with her doe shaped eyes. As I was staring at her with my fiercest rejection face, I realized why all the boys in school kept gushing over her – she was the epitome of symmetry. I continued to gawk at her for a few minutes before grabbing my book once more. “Tanya, please! If you do this, I’ll do anything for you!” I raised an eyebrow at her and sniggered, “Babe, there’s really nothing that you can do for me! And even if you could, I wouldn’t do this. Honestly, I do not want to embarrass myself!” “But do it for the house! Don’t you love the house?” She looked at me, the innocence of a 14 year old glaring in front of me. I was only 4 years older to her but I felt a generation gap between us. If I was being truthful, the house was something that I loved and despite all the troubles I had gone through with Arpit, I genuinely liked being a part of something bigger at school.
It was nearly a week after that conversation in my dorm room and I had forgotten about Goutami’s desperate attempts to convince me. It was afternoon study time and I was walking out of the library, arms filled with books when a bespectacled figure jumped in front of me. “Jeez Ashna! You scared me there! I almost dropped the books!” “Ok why won’t you take part in the competition?” Oh god, not her as well! “Because I don’t want to embarrass myself! What’s the point anyway? It’s not like we aren’t going to win the Sports Championship!” “But if there are two swimmers from our house and there are only 3 participants, doesn’t that make a difference?” “How do you know there are two swimmers?” By this time, I had reached the door of my classroom and was waiting for a response from Ashna. “Ok we are going to talk about this after games. Wait for me during snacks and I’ll convince you.” “Yeah, let’s see you try!” And I thought that would be the end of it.
As I sat in the classroom, organising my desk and opening my laptop, I wondered why I was so adamant about not even considering the option to participate in the event. I knew what Ashna said was true. The Super Senior Girls category in the swimming events had only 2 proper swimmers (out of which only one girl was in the school team) and one of the swimmers was from my house. I didn’t even care about the fact that I would be winning a medal in sports for the first time in my schooling life and how ironic it was that it would be in my last year of schooling. Deep down in the pits of my stomach, I was terrified of swimming in front of people. A few friends and family was fine during vacations, but in front of my juniors and some people who I didn’t even like – that was the most daunting prospect that faced me. Not to mention I had no clue how to dive properly and was too afraid to even try learning it on my own. This is what I told Ashna when I met her during snacks. “But Tanya, I’ll teach you how to dive! It’s really simple and you’ll need to do it for one event only!” Background – Ashna was also part of the school swimming team but she was in the category below me. “What do you mean one event? I thought I only needed to take part in one event – breast stroke!” She fiddled with her hands – a sign that she was about to tell me something that I didn’t like. “Oh god! Don’t tell me……..” “You know back stroke as well, right?” “Yeah yeah yeah sign me up.” “GEETHIKA SHE AGREED!” I bent my head into my hands and tried not to think about the ways the boys in my class would mercilessly make fun of me. Geethika looked so happy at my decision and I faked a smile as the warden called us all back in to the dorm.
The days till the final day went by quickly. My sister was coming down for the 3 day Sports Mela and she was very excited about my participation in the swimming events. The one class that I took with Ashna teaching me how to dive was witnessed by a couple of pigeons and Arpit, who happened to be practising in the other lane. And yes, he too was part of the school swimming team. If that wasn’t mortifying, I gave up learning how to dive after the skin on my torso became tomato red from hitting the water with force instead of cutting through the water, like I was supposed to do. The palpitations increased as February 14th came near and the sleep became non-existent the night before D-Day. My friends thought the only way to cheer me up was to tease me and that did more harm than good. There was nothing anyone could have done to bring me out of my misery except for burning the school down and effectively cancelling Sports Day (or like how our school used to call it, Khel Mela)
The day dawned and even though the event was scheduled to be the final one of the day (because the universe was torturing me for fun), I couldn’t even concentrate on the dominance that our house displayed (which had been going on for a few years before I joined school as well). I was only focussed on getting through those two events without embarrassing myself like slipping in the pool and hitting my head or forgetting how to swim and drowning. Neither of those things would have happened but my mind didn’t take that into account. The clock ticked on and it was 4pm. I was dressed in my swimsuit, cap, and goggles and was shivering at the edge. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my sister sitting along with my friends, waving and cheering for me even though there was no competition at all. The next 5 minutes were a blur to me. I only remember a brief moment when Arpit caught my eye and seemed to smile at me. For all I know, I could have been delirious from the sudden rush of adrenaline and he might have been simply looking at me. But I was content to keep that memory in mind as the next event began. For the life of me, those 5 minutes were also a blur to me and before I could even wrap a towel around me, I was hugged by Ashna (who had finished her events before me) and my sister. “I’m so proud of you!” “Akka, it was nothing. There was literally nothing that I had to do.” “No but you’re my baby and you did so well. Dad would have been so proud of you. But you do need a new swimsuit.” I smiled at her, thinking of how my father would have embarrassed me by whistling throughout the entire race. I went into the changing room to wash up and came back outside to receive the medals.
2 bronze medals in breast stroke and back stroke – I could honestly never imagine that happening ever again. The euphoria of completing those races and not being utterly embarrassed by the experience was overwhelming. Even one of the boys who made fun of how I looked came up to me and said, “Damn Tanya, didn’t think you could complete the race. But you did it. Props, man. Congo!” I shook the hand he offered and watched him shuffle away in amazement. That was the same reaction I got as I entered the dining hall during dinner from a lot of people. I seemed to have inspired many to congratulate me on my bravery as if I had just saved a child from a burning building. As I was listening to how one of my friends defended me in front of some junior who was cackling on about my likeness to a hippo in water, a finger tapped me on the shoulder and everyone became quiet. “Hey. Just wanted to tell you that you were good. Not national zone level good, but good.” I looked down and didn’t meet eye contact with Arpit but I could recognise how genuine he was trying to be. “Thanks. Wasn’t really that big of a deal though.” “Haha, come on. 3rd step on the podium? Not many people will even guess that about you.” I looked up at him, all 6 foot 2 inches of him, as he walked away, turning back to smile at me. That was the only thing I would remember from that day, 3rd step on the podium.